Priority Questions.

Economic Competitiveness.

Phil Hogan

Question:

139 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the action he will take on account of the recent report of the National Competitiveness Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25672/05]

The National Competitiveness Council's annual competitiveness report for 2005, benchmarks Ireland's competitiveness relative to our 15 main trading partners and competitors using a compendium of 170 indicators. The indicators contained in the report are published by a wide variety of international sources.

The NCC's annual competitiveness report is published separately this year while the council expects to publish its annual competitiveness challenge in late October. That document, which will draw on the analysis of the annual competitiveness report, will highlight the main challenges facing the economy and the policy options required to meet them. The NCC provides a valuable input to the formation of Government policies through its work on competitiveness benchmarking as it highlights where the economy is strong in competitiveness terms but also warns us about competitiveness issues. Upon publication of the competitiveness challenge the Government will give careful consideration to the policy recommendations proposed by the council.

The NCC highlights some important indicators of robust economic performance that show that we have broadly implemented the right mix of policies. In 2004, the number of people in employment in Ireland grew strongly with almost 1.9 million in employment by the end of the year. Consumer inflation stabilised and by mid-2005, Ireland's rate of inflation was below the eurozone average. Government finances remained healthy and our investment in infrastructure as a percentage of gross domestic product is approximately twice the EU average at 5%. Ireland remains highly competitive in terms of taxation with Ireland ranked first for both personal and corporation taxes.

The report also shows that Ireland has performed remarkably well in terms of growing national incomes. The indicators reflect that living standards in Ireland both in terms of GDP, where we are first out of 15, and gross national product, where we are sixth out of 16, have grown significantly.

However, despite these notable successes the NCC's annual competitiveness report highlights several areas where Ireland's performance can be improved. It should be noted that the council acknowledges that given the different economic, political and social goals of various countries and their different physical geographies and resources, it is not realistic or desirable for any country to seek to outperform other countries on all measures.

I have noted the NCC comments on competition policy and I reaffirm the Government's commitment to removing unwarranted constraints on competition in the economy. A lower level of competition here compared with competitor countries has been cited as a limiting factor in competitiveness. We need to do more to intensify competition in the provision of products and services.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The information and communications technology sector is a vital component of the economy accounting for 82,100 jobs and 17% of total value added in industry and services. The Government recognises the importance of this sector and is undertaking significant investment in the roll-out of broadband through the metropolitan area networks and the schools broadband programme.

I draw some very strong conclusions from the report and in particular recognise its importance as an input which should inform the forthcoming partnership talks. In the context of concerns about the pace of growth in labour costs, wage moderation combined with a renewed emphasis on increased productivity levels will be critical in maintaining national competitiveness. This is at the core of the NCC message and I look forward to the council's specific policy recommendations in these areas when the council produces its competitiveness challenge report later in the year.

In the meantime our emphasis on competitiveness is having some impact. The latest competitive rankings compiled by the World Economic Forum, which were published today, show that Ireland has moved up four places from 30th to 26th out of 117 countries. The higher ranking suggests that we have turned an important corner in rebuilding national competitiveness.

The Minister has indicated various issues in regard to competitiveness. If he reflects on the replies given by his predecessor in 2001 or 2002 or in any Question Time where the issue was raised, he will find that the answer he has read out is more or less the same. In December 2001 the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were warned about all these issues but they did nothing. In January 2004 the Taoiseach launched a document entitled Better Regulation but nothing has happened since. From his reading of the report of the National Competitiveness Council, where does the Minister think the unwarranted constraints in competition arise from?

First, it is not the same reply.

The Minister has them in his notes.

No. The Deputy would not have been in a position to get the last paragraph because it shows a change.

How did he think of that one?

The Deputy will be only too glad to hear this one.

If it is so important, why did the Minister not put it at the start of his reply?

The latest competitiveness rankings compiled by the World Economic Forum, which were published today, show that Ireland has moved up four places — from 30th to 26th out of 117 countries. The higher ranking suggests, perhaps, that we have turned an important corner in rebuilding national competitiveness.

As regards the Deputy's second point concerning better regulation, things have happened.

What happened?

One example is the regulation pertaining to directors' compliance. We have referred that to the company law review body and have listened to industry.

The Minister is kicking to touch.

Recommendations are coming forward which suggest that a significant and substantial amendment is required. So we are listening to industry as well as consulting business on key issues and will take action in future. The Deputy asked what the constraints are. Issues such as the groceries order constitute a constraint. In dealing with such issues we can create a greater competitive environment in the local economy. I would be interested to hear the Deputy's party's position on that being clarified.

It is quite clear.

Now is the Deputy's chance.

If the Minister answered the question he was asked, which was what he believed were the unwarranted constraints on competition, we might get some information. The Minister has the same document that I have and he has read extracts from it. The recently published document states that the intensity of local competition and the efficiency of competition legislation are perceived as being low. Does the Minister accept that Irish entrepreneurs are experiencing difficulty in obtaining low-risk finance and that we still have a low level of research and development investment? Would he also accept the difficulties outlined in the OECD report on higher education as they relate to an enterprise economy? Will the Minister outline what he intends to do about these issues and other issues outlined in the report of the National Competitiveness Council?

One area identified by the National Competitiveness Council concerned competition within the domestic economy, be it in the retail, construction or other sectors. Last year, my colleague the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government made changes to the planning regulations to facilitate greater competition by permitting certain stores to come into the country.

One store.

That was a response to a recommendation by the National Competitiveness Council, so action is being taken on foot of such recommendations.

Last year, we had the highest number of small business start-ups within the European Union. I have established a small business forum to prepare for the next decade on issues that we must address to maintain competitiveness. According to the report by the National Competitiveness Council we score highly in maintaining a generally good environment for entrepreneurial activity. I wish to continue in that direction and we will not be complacent on the issue.

We have made significant gains in research and development due to programmes I initiated as Minister for Education and Science, in addition to the science foundation programme the Tánaiste initiated. That has transformed research here.

Where is it now?

We intend to go up to a further level of research and development input because it is inextricably linked to competitiveness and economic performance.

Consumer Prices.

Brendan Howlin

Question:

140 Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if his attention has been drawn to the serious concern expressed in recent months by consumers at prices and general cost of living issues as reflected by the public reaction to the “Rip Off Republic” television programmes and the opinion poll in the Irish Examiner showing that cost of living and “Rip off Ireland” was now the biggest issue of concern among those polled; his views on the validity of these concerns; the steps he intends to take to end exploitation of consumers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25671/05]

I am aware of the concerns expressed in several quarters about the price of certain goods and services and, in particular, the belief among many consumers that they are not getting a fair deal. The Deputy will be aware that in March 2004 the Tánaiste appointed the consumer strategy group to advise and make recommendations for the development of a national consumer policy strategy.

In its recently published report Make Consumers Count, the group concluded that Irish consumers are not getting a fair deal. Notwithstanding the fact that the latest returns show that inflation continues to moderate, the Government is concerned that consumers are not getting value in a number of areas.

The group's report re-emphasises the importance of empowering consumers so that they can make informed choices and reap the benefits of freely functioning competitive markets. The Deputy will be aware of developments in competition policy in terms of increasing the resources to the Competition Authority and updating competition law.

The consumer strategy group has suggested a way forward for consumer protection policy, particularly how the balance of power can be shifted more toward the consumer, and has made more than 30 separate recommendations as to how this can be achieved. The group's core recommendation that a new statutory body, the national consumer agency, be established to advocate the consumer's case has already been accepted by the Government. My Department has begun work to ensure the new agency is formally established as soon as possible.

The Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs continues to play an important role in the area of consumer protection, particularly in enforcing the wide range of existing consumer laws and regulations. In this regard the Deputy will be aware that my Department recently significantly increased the sanctions for breaches of those laws.

To build upon the work of the ODCA and to ensure that the momentum of the CSG report is maintained and that the consumer's voice is heard, I recently appointed a board to the new agency to act in an interim capacity until the agency is formally established. The Deputy will be aware that since its appointment, the board has been very active on issues such as the debate on the future of the groceries order, the cost of goods and services etc. It is vital that these and other consumer debates are not dominated by vested interests as has happened heretofore and that the consumer's case is forcefully advocated and articulated. I am confident the interim board will continue to be a forceful advocate for the consumer until the full national consumer agency is established. In this regard I am aware that the board intends to increase its activities significantly in terms of consumer awareness, advocacy and information campaigns.

In addition to the establishment of the NCA, a number of the other recommendations of the consumer strategy group have already been implemented. For example, my Department has significantly increased the fines for breaching consumer protection laws as recommended by the CSG. The Department is also reviewing the current extensive code of consumer law to ensure that it meets the needs of the modern consumer.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

I am satisfied that the report of the consumer strategy group offers the way forward. The report re-emphasises the importance of promoting competition and empowering consumers. I am confident the application of these policies in conjunction with the work of agencies such as the Competition Authority, the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs and the interim board of the national consumer agency will help to ensure that consumers get a fair deal.

Is the Minister aware that a recent opinion poll published in the Irish Examiner showed that 25% of the population believe we live in a rip-off culture and that 49% regarded consumers being fleeced as the biggest single item concerning them, ahead even of the health service? Does the Minister agree that the people are right? Does he accept that it aggravates people to hear him talk of low inflation when on 1 October they will be faced with gas price increases of 25% and when VHI premiums has doubled since the Government parties came to office? I ask him specifically not what he believes or is aware of but what he will now do after more than eight years in office to address issues that clearly represent the priority with the voting public.

I am obviously aware of everything that is published in the Irish Examiner and will continue to be so in future.

The people are aware of the Minister's inaction on the issues.

In addition, we appointed the national consumer agency to go after consumer issues.

The Government parties have been in office for eight years.

The Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption.

The Government does not and will not set prices or act as a price-controlling agency, which is a fundamental principle to which we adhere. However, we can empower the consumer to an extent that has not been done historically. It is somewhat difficult to take the Deputy sincerely having read the deliberations of the Oireachtas joint committee on an issue such as the retail sector. When a fundamental issue was discussed by the Oireachtas joint committee, the Deputy held to a no-change position.

Did the Minister read the report?

I certainly did.

He should read it again.

In many ways it highlighted a degree of hypocrisy. While the Deputy rails loudly and strongly articulates the issues, when it comes to concrete actions as to how we should address the issues, he comes up very short. The mechanisms we have put in place and the resources we will allocate will address the matter. The Competition Act introduced by my predecessor, the Tánaiste, is quite significant and advanced legislation to address competition issues in the economy. Ultimately we will drive prices down through competition and by creating the right kind of environment and context. We will continue to advocate those types of ongoing initiatives to get dividends.

I will be glad to answer questions from the Minister when I sit in his seat. However, right now he must answer my questions. What does he have to say about the 100% increase in VHI charges, the 25% increase in gas charges which will occur in October, and the 44% increase in electricity charges since 2002? What does the Minister have to say about his record, which is under scrutiny in the House now? When will we see the legislation on the much-vaunted national consumer agency, or are we to believe what we read in a weekend newspaper, namely that it will be delayed for another year, and that the agency will act on an interim basis without statutory authority? Is that the level of priority the Minister attaches to this issue after so long in office?

We on this side of the House will not be berated about action on the groceries order. The Tánaiste sat in the Minister's Department for a number of years and did nothing about it. The Minister should stop talking about it. When will he take action on any of the issues which affect the voting public and the consumers who are now greatly fed up at paying through the nose, at stealth taxes and higher prices, while the Minister pretends we have a low tax economy?

We are not pretending we have a low tax economy. As I said in reply to a previous question, Ireland comes first out of 15 countries, and does well in any international comparison, in terms of low income tax.

We are not talking of income tax. I am talking of stealth taxes.

With all due respect, the Deputy said I should stop pretending we have a low tax economy.

There are 36 stealth taxes.

We have a low tax economy. That is so in respect of any international assessment of Ireland's tax position, be it with regard to corporation tax, which we reduced from 36% to 12.5% since this Government came to power, or with regard to income tax.

We are not talking of income tax. The corporation tax rates were agreed by the rainbow Government.

We brought in a regulation which deals with issues related to electricity, gas and so on. Setting the market price for any of the utilities does not fall within the ambit of a particular Minister.

The Minister is indifferent to the price rises.

Equally, we cannot in some instances compare our position on energy prices with those of our counterparts, given our historic reliance on fossil fuels, 90% of which we import to meet our energy needs.

Unemployment Levels.

Seamus Healy

Question:

141 Mr. Healy asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps he has taken to address the very serious and long-standing unemployment levels in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary since he met a deputation from the town council and Oireachtas Members on 19 July 2005; the number of site visits to Carrick-on-Suir the industrial promotion agencies have arranged since that date; the priority he has instructed the industrial promotion agencies to give to job creation in Carrick-on-Suir; and if he will establish a jobs task force for the town. [25668/05]

Support for job creation and investment is a matter for the industrial development agencies. Under the industrial development Acts I may give general policy directives to IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland but I am precluded from giving directives regarding individual undertakings or from giving preference to one area over others.

As the Deputy is aware, I met a delegation from Carrick-on-Suir town council, led by the mayor, Councillor Sylvia Cooney Sheehan, on Tuesday, 19 July last. Following that meeting I met FÁS and requested it to re-examine its level of engagement with the long-term unemployed in the town. The director general has reported to me that resulting from this review, FÁS has decided to make an additional budget allocation to fund its activities in the Carrick-on-Suir area.

As I stated in a letter to the manager of the town council on 20 September 2005, FÁS, as a key strategic response to the particular circumstances in Carrick-on-Suir, will implement a high support programme, initially prioritising support for 100 clients and subsequently to additional clients who may wish to engage in the process. The programme will provide a one-to-one support process for individuals to identify training and development needs. Funding has been put in place to respond to the needs identified either through training provided by FÁS or any other agency which can respond with appropriate interventions.

By its nature the process will take some time. It will commence in October 2005 and continue through 2006. Initial arrangements have already commenced between FÁS and the Department of Social and Family Affairs to enable the engagement to commence as quickly as possible. In addition, a computer training course is commencing on 24 October 2005 for clients identified by the local employment service.

That meeting was also attended by officials from IDA and Enterprise Ireland and I have been assured by both agencies that they will do what they can to assist in bringing investment to the town. Since that meeting there have been no site visits to the town in terms of foreign direct investment but the overall IDA strategy for south Tipperary is to concentrate future economic development in Clonmel and to develop the town as a first-class location for overseas investment. This strategy has been agreed with the south Tipperary county development board.

Enterprise Ireland continues to foster job creation in Tipperary South and in the south east region. Enterprise Ireland job creation activity is focused on the creation of new jobs through supporting entrepreneurs setting up new high potential start-up companies, the retention and creation of new jobs in existing companies and in enhancing the innovation capability of Ireland at a national and regional level through support of research in companies and third level institutions.

Carrick-on-Suir has benefited from a significant amount of direct financial assistance from Tipperary South Riding enterprise board. Since its inception to date, the board has approved €573,895 in financial assistance to business in the Carrick-on-Suir area resulting in the creation of 67 jobs. Tipperary South Riding enterprise board has promoted its autumn training programme for businesses widely in south Tipperary including in Carrick-on-Suir. Its first autumn training programme in Carrick-on-Suir commenced on 6 September with 20 participants as well as additional participants from Carrick-on-Suir attending training programmes taking place in Clonmel.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

As part of its wider commitment to the economic development of south Tipperary, the Tipperary South Riding CEB is represented on the newly formed economic development committee as well as the tourism development committee. The CEB representative co-ordinated the development and launch of a new website promoting Carrick-on-Suir in August 2005 as part of its contribution to the work of this committee.

Any further initiatives regarding job creation should be under the auspices of the county development board, with which the industrial development agencies are already involved. This would be in line with the position adopted in other areas. In recent years, we have steered away from establishing task forces and, in keeping with this policy it is not proposed to establish the specific task force to which the Deputy referred. I am confident the policies and strategies pursued by the development agencies, together with the ongoing commitment and support from Government, will bear fruit in terms of sustainable additional investment for all the towns in south Tipperary.

In view of the Minister's reply today and his replies to other questions in the last session is it not true that he has washed his hands of job creation in Carrick-on-Suir? Since the deputation met the Minister on 19 July last, no job has been created and there has been no site visit to the town. The Minister and the Government have abandoned the town of Carrick-on-Suir. There are 960 people unemployed among the town's population of 5,000. Does the Minister understand what that means?

This is not something that occurred recently; it has been the case for ten to 15 years. The Minister's party has been in Government for all but two of the past 20 years but it has not raised a hand to create employment in Carrick-on-Suir. There is the same level of unemployment in the town today as there was when the Minister's party came into office in 1997. It is time to establish a jobs task force to ensure that industry is located in Carrick-on-Suir. Priority must be given to the town because it is an unemployment black spot. I hope the Minister will establish such a task force to ensure job creation and investment there.

At the meeting in July, which the Deputy as well as Deputies Davern and Hayes and the councillors attended the overriding consideration was the training agenda. It was accepted that up-skilling and a proper skills foundation in the town was the key to future employment capacity and to securing jobs created in the region. It is unacceptable to do what the Deputy has done, which is to put a circle around Carrick-on-Suir and suggest that I should only look inwards and not 15 miles down the road, where last year the IDA announced a 1,000 jobs expansion in Guidant in Clonmel. It is simply untenable to attack either the IDA or the Government. They are implementing a reasonable strategy for the region. More than 200 jobs are to be created over the next couple of years in that facility.

The key agenda is to ensure we get as many people who are unemployed in Carrick-on-Suir into jobs that are created seven or 15 miles up the road as well as within the town——

Eight years later the town still has the same number unemployed.

That is the sensible way forward for the town and for south Tipperary. We must maximise the strengths the area can offer and then market them. That will have a ripple effect in towns such as Carrick-on-Suir and other towns in Clonmel's hinterland. That is what we are doing. It is a sensible strategy. If improvements can be made on the skills front, it will be possible to make inroads into what I accept are unacceptable levels of unemployment. That is the reason I immediately contacted FÁS following the representations made to me by the mayor of the town, the officials and the delegation. They suggested that I start by concentrating on the human resource issue first by securing a more friendly FÁS operation for the town. I have done that.

We must proceed to Question No. 142.

Is the Minister not aware that Carrick-on-Suir already has strengths? It is on the N24 and is within 15 miles of Waterford city and its airport. It is a fine town. It is tenable to demand that jobs be created in Carrick-on-Suir for at least some of the 960 people who have been unemployed there for the past ten years. There are more people unemployed in the town today than there were when this Government took office in 1997. I demand that the Minister establish a task force for Carrick-on-Suir and prioritise the town. I make no apology for doing so. It is unacceptable and untenable that this number of people remains unemployed in a town of the size of Carrick-on-Suir. The Minister should establish that task force immediately.

There is a county development board already in place on which——

We want Government action.

——the industrial agencies are represented. There is no point re-inventing the wheel just for the optics and creating another task force. We do not propose to do so.

There are 960 people out of work.

Grocery Industry.

Phil Hogan

Question:

142 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment when he will finalise his policy in respect of the review of the groceries order 1987; his views on this important matter; and his plans to review the Competition Act 2002. [25673/05]

The public consultation process which I initiated following the consumer strategy group's recommendation that the groceries order should be revoked generated in excess of 550 submissions. These were received from a wide range of parties, including trade groups, producers, retailers as well as a significant number from the public. All the submissions have been considered and a comprehensive report on the consultation process is being finalised within my Department. I expect that the report will include recommendations as to what action is appropriate with regard to the order and I will consider its findings and bring a recommendation to the Government by the end of October.

If it is decided that the order should be amended or revoked, then primary legislation will be necessary. Any such legislation could be effected through an amendment to the Competition Act 2002 or by stand-alone legislation. I have no immediate plans for a general review of the Competition Act given that the statute is relatively new legislation which has worked well to date.

Given that the Minister has had a long time to consider this issue and in view of the uncertainty it is creating in the grocery trade for consumers and suppliers as well as for people in the retail trade, does the Minister accept there is a need for clarity and an early decision on this matter? I welcome his statement that we will have a result by the end of October. What is the Minister's view on predatory pricing and below-cost selling and will he share it with the House?

A decision will be made in October. It was important to allow a two-month public consultation programme prior to 31 July, as we did. We received a significant number of submissions which totalled 521. As I stated in replies to other questions, the order was introduced a long time ago, the situation has changed quite dramatically since then and the retail market has transformed. The Competition Act has clear provisions with regard to predatory pricing and abuse of dominance by any player in the market.

In this field one must always be careful with regard to the dividing line between genuine competition and what may be termed predatory pricing. It is not always easy to legislate definitively on that point. From my observations and analysis of the situation I will state the retention of the existing groceries order is not tenable. I have made that clear and put that view on public record. I want to make a recommendation to Government which will then require a reasonable period to decide upon that recommendation. A timeframe of the end of October will allow that.

The Minister is aware we had much discussion on this matter, such as meetings between members of the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Small Business and players in the retail sector such as Tesco and groups such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Crosscare and the Combat Poverty Agency.

The Competition Authority also came before that committee and expressed quite forthright views on competition in the grocery trade. I will paraphrase the chairman of the authority who stated that it is not his business to decide whether to have large multiples or small shops. His role is to adjudicate on competition issues. It does not matter to him whether there is a concentration in the market as his remit is to ensure the existence of a competitive environment in which to do business. Does the Minister agree with that assessment? Does he also not mind whether major multiples will gobble up the rest of the market and concentrate the market in the hands of a few?

Is the Deputy playing the RGDATA game? It is interesting that——

I remind the Minister the view I presented is mine and not that of anyone else.

I accept that. Of the submissions, 44% came from the symbol groups. It may be interesting for the House to hear that approximately 398 of the submissions favoured retention of the order, 153 favoured revocation while the remaining ten sought amendments or raised other issues. Not surprisingly, the submissions favouring retention came from the industry while the majority of those favouring revocation came from the public and consumer groups. Of the overall, 44% or 246 came from the symbol groups.

We want to avoid abuse of dominance by any particular player but we do want to bring more competition into the market. It is our view also that the market has changed significantly. I am not the chairman of the Competition Authority——

The Minister should answer the question I put to him.

The Deputy should wait to hear the answer. One of the key pluses of the Competition Act 2002 was to take politics out of the operations of the Competition Authority in terms of its activities, particularly in terms of the chairman. He has a specific statutory remit and within that are provisions to deal with abuse of dominance.

What is dominance——

I am glad the Minister has put his faith in the Competition Authority because if he is saying that this is the body that will police any new legislation he might propose, he would not want to hold his breath in respect of competition issues because there has not been a case taken under the Competition Act on predatory pricing since 1991. How will the Minister address the problem if that is the authority that will police any new law he will introduce to cover competition in the food sector?

There might be a number of factors as to why a case was not taken. In terms of pricing for a range of foodstuffs, for example, we are higher in that regard than most other member states. We know anecdotally that the price differential between one store and another can be substantial, yet significant sectors of the market do not appear to be concerned about that.

That is what they call the free market.

That is the point I am making. There is no evidence of a predatory pricing agenda but I do get evidence, and it is even obvious from the submissions, that there are significant differentials now, depending on the type of store, in terms of what one will pay. The problem with the groceries order is that it prohibits selling at anything below net invoice price.

Employment Conditions.

Arthur Morgan

Question:

143 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment his views on the current working conditions of employees on board a shipping vessel (details supplied) and the fact that the company concerned now intends to extend these employment conditions to its ships operating on the Dublin-Holyhead and Rosslare-Pembroke routes. [25767/05]

I understand that the first vessel referred to by the Deputy is not registered in Ireland, and that a ship management agency recruits, employs and manages the ship's staff on this service. Where the terms and conditions of employees are concerned, the flag state, that is the state where the ship is registered, has the exclusive rights to exercise legislative and enforcement jurisdiction over its ships on the high seas. Seafarers on Irish registered ships remain subject to the provisions of Irish law regardless of the location of the ship.

Surveyors from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources may inspect ships docked at Irish ports to ensure that foreign registered vessels are maintained and operated in compliance with international safety standards. Port authorities have inspected the vessel referred to by the Deputy in the past and were satisfied that the living and working standards were in compliance with the relevant standards.

On 19 September, Irish Ferries announced that it had offered a voluntary severance package to its 543 seafaring employees on its Irish Sea services between Dublin-Holyhead and Rosslare-Pembroke. According to the company, the decision was taken as a result of low-cost shipping competition and increased capacity from low fares airlines. I understand that the company intends to replace those staff made redundant with third party agency arrangements for EU sourced staff.

Primary responsibility for this sector rests with the Minister and the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The Minister of State with responsibility for the marine has already stated that he considers the measures announced as extreme and that the implementation of the proposed redundancies would have grave consequences for Irish seafarer employment, given Irish Ferries' position as the largest employer of Irish seafarers. He expressed his hope that the company would delay implementation of its plan until recent proposals concerning state aid guidelines for the sector have been considered by the Government.

Notwithstanding the limitations of international law as outlined, the services of the State's dispute-settling machinery of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court are available to the parties at any stage.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply giving a general outline of the situation as it stands but my question concerns what he intends to do to address the problem at Irish Ferries to ensure that no worker on board ferry services operating out of Irish ports is subjected to the exploitative working conditions proposed by that company. Everybody knows what the company is doing and nearly everybody agrees that it should not be allowed to get away with it.

Does the Minister of State agree that what is needed is a European ferries directive to deal with passenger and ferry services operating within the Community and subjecting workers to pay and conditions below the minimum standards throughout the EU? Has the Minister contacted the EU Commission in respect of raising such a prospect to deal with what Irish Ferries propose in this case? We know what will happen if the company gets away with it.

As I explained, the issue of seafarers aboard Irish registered ships is one that can be dealt with in this jurisdiction. Unfortunately, when ships are registered in other jurisdictions we do not have that power. I am taken by the Deputy's suggestion that this be dealt with at European level. I pay tribute to the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Gallagher, for the manner in which he has pursued this matter. I assure the House that every effort will be made to ensure that conditions of Irish workers comply with Irish legislation in so far as it is within the jurisdiction of the Government. At present that can only be done in respect of Irish registered vessels.

What is partnership worth if we allow flags of convenience ships to treat workers in this way? What is its value if companies can use a manipulative facility to move away from conditions for any workers on board these ferries? Does the Minister accept that the proposition is undoubtedly the creation of exploitative working conditions over which we will have no control? Does the Minister accept that Irish Ferries should not be allowed to get away with this? What is the point of rhetoric on respecting workers' rights on ferries or elsewhere? That is not worth a damn if we are to let these people tread all over us in the way proposed.

I am as angry as the Deputy in respect of this matter. The reality is that shipping companies are entitled to operate under flags of convenience. In those circumstances it is clear to all of us that little can be done within this jurisdiction.

Will the Minister consider the option of an EU ferries directive?

The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has examined various options, including the one the Deputy mentioned. Unfortunately any resolution arising on foot of these discussions would be long-term and would not address the current difficulty. The company is quite profitable and in the present circumstances it is difficult to justify the action proposed.

On a point of order, I gave notice to the office of the Ceann Comhairle regarding the ruling out of a question tabled today. This question on general insurance was transferred to the Department of Transport, which does not have responsibility for the matter. The General Office advised me that it is a matter for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment who, amazingly, transferred a question on insurance to the Department of Transport. I am advised I have no redress other than to raise the matter with the Chair now.

The Chair has no responsibility either. It is a matter for the Government.

On a point of order, my understanding is that this is part of the insurance reform programme. Regulatory matters of general insurance issues are the responsibility of the Department of Finance, car insurance is the responsibility of the Department of Transport and my Department has retained responsibility for the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. We do not have responsibility for general insurance matters.

It is not a matter for the Chair.

A question on general insurance was transferred to the Department of Transport.

It is the responsibility of the Deputy to put down the right question to the right Department.

Now it is a matter of putting down the correct question. Is the Minister saying I did not ask the right question?

The Deputy should table it to the correct Department.

We cannot have a debate on it.

The question is quite clear. It concerns the huge profits for the insurance sector. I have asked the Minister——

I have not seen that question.

We must proceed with other questions.

The Minister saw it. He transferred it to the Minister for Transport. I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle what he will do about this matter as we begin a new Dáil session.

It is not a matter for the Chair. It is a matter for the Government.

It is quite clear that the Department of Transport cannot answer this question.

The Chair has no function in this matter.

Can a question be killed off by moving it to a Department to which the question is not relevant? It is extraordinary.